Enemies, innocent victims and soldiers have always made up the three faces of war. With war growing more distant, with drones capable of performing on the battlefield while their “pilots” remain thousands of miles away, two of those faces have, however, faded into the background in recent years. Today, we are left with just the reassuring “face” of the terrorist enemy, killed clinically by remote control while we go about our lives, apparently without any “collateral damage” or danger to our soldiers. Now, however, that may slowly be changing, bringing the true face of the drone campaigns Washington has pursued since 9/11 into far greater focus.
Imagine if those drone wars going on in Pakistan and Yemen (as well as the United States) had a human face all the time, so that we could understand what it was like to live constantly, in and out of those distant battle zones, with the specter of death. In addition to images of the “Al Qaeda” operatives who the White House wants us to believe are the sole targets of its drone campaigns, we would regularly see photos of innocent victims of drone attacks gathered by human rights groups from their relatives and neighbors. And what about the third group—the military personnel whose lives revolve around killing fields so far away—whose stories, in these years of Washington’s drone assassination campaigns, we’ve just about never heard?
After all, soldiers no longer set sail on ships to journey to distant battlefields for months at a time. Instead, every day, thousands of men and women sign onto their computers at desks on military bases in the continental United States and abroad where they spend hours glued to screens watching the daily lives of people often on the other side of the planet. Occasionally, they get an order from Washington to push a button and vaporize their subjects. It sounds just like—and the comparison has been made often enough—a video game, which can be switched off at the end of a shift, after which those pilots return home to families and everyday life.
And if you believed what little we normally see of them—what, that is, the Air Force has let us see (the CIA part of the drone program being off-limits to news reporting)—that would indeed seem to be the straightforward story of life for our drone warriors. Take Rene Lopez, who in shots of a recent homecoming welcome at Fort Gordon in Georgia appears to be a doting father. Photographed for the local papers on his return from a tour in Afghanistan, the young soldier is seen holding and kissing his infant daughter dressed in a bright pink top. He smiles with delight as the wide-eyed child tries on his military hat.